Despite its reputation as a hotspot of glitz and glamour, Los Angeles has long been the epicenter of American noir. Evil lurks in the heart of men nationwide, but the menacing, mistrustful spirit of Los Angeles after dark is where such evil is most eloquently evoked. It is the ultimate urban allusion for the double-crossers, the desperate, the scheming, and the conflicted. Darker than DC Comic’s Gotham and full of false promises, L.A.‘s neon lights wrestle with the mountainous perimeter as shadows fall in place of rain. It’s the town of Raymond Chandler’s private eye, James Ellroy’s crooked cops, Humphrey Bogart’s disillusioned screenwriter in In a Lonely Place. From X’s film noir punk to Tom Waits’ nighthawk junkyard, the City of Angels has inspired a foreboding element in contemporary art. Its flat landscape has been irreversibly shapeshifted into legend and lore by celluloid and ink.
Enter the aptly named Midnight Movies, the latest L.A.-based band to rise above the town’s muddled non-scene. Midnight Movies make music that is subconsciously instinctual to their geographic location. Part Yo La Tengo and part Blade Runner, the trio’s self-titled debut is all about after-hours atmosphere and ashen intrigue. Midnight Movies place heavy emphasis on the ghostly, ominous mood they create: Gena Olivier’s Nico-cum-Georgia Hubley vocals (incidentally like Hubley, she’s also the drummer), Jason Hammons’ synthesized space oddities, and Larry Schemel’s sparkling guitar twinkles all conspire to conjure imagery as well as sound. Their album is the prototypical example of a band finding itself, a little too attached to their perpetrated form. The problem with noir (and for that matter, Midnight Movies) is that it can be all surface. In a highly concerted effort to create its moody, cinematic environment, Midnight Movies lacks a needed underbelly of substance.
The first lines of the opening track “Persimmon Tree” set the album’s tone, mirrored by some tremolo guitar sweeps and expanding keyboard swells: “Grey clouds fly in autumn skies / Stark black stems bleed amber / Bright orange, dark red, pull / Hanging fruit lingers dripping ripe”. Olivier’s lyrics, like the music, are eclipsed in shadows, cautionary and issued forth in deep, breathy hues. Later, the closing “Time and Space” injects the band’s vampirical jams with more color: “Black mountains / A powder blue sky / The horizon a neon green line”. The invocation of colors seems to make no difference to the band as it carelessly careens off into an abandoned desert highway, leaving behind the artificial light of the city.
“Strange Design” takes its pulse at the wrist, moving from a sobered tempo into a vaporous jam. “After sacred sacrifice / I finally feel your fire / And it’s a highway of lost desire,” Olivier cryptically sings before the band jumpstarts the pace, guitars and keyboards swallowing the scenery. “Mirage” attempts to find motivations behind assumed emotions, Hammons’ keyboards like toys springing to life. “I miss you too / Or perhaps the feeling of wanting to,” Olivier ponders as the song’s upright posture rhythm marches on. A melancholy horn section and brooding cello add welcomed flexibility to “Words for a Love Song”, but Olivier’s slight lyrics (quite literally, a list of words for the titular subject) fail to match the blossoming accompaniment. And “Just to Play”, a portrait of a girl “too old for cute, too young for cool”, is downright spooky. The monotone incantation “just to play” that closes out the song, wrapped in dramatic waves of instrumentation that seem to seal the character’s fate, implicates more than mere childhood desires.
When Midnight Movies reaches its end, there’s not that much to mull over or hold onto. The sprightly melodies and fermenting ambience lift from memory as expectedly as L.A.‘s early morning cloud cover. The shadows can hold infinite fascination while you’re spying among them; once out of the dark, it takes more than Midnight Movies is willing to give to remind you why you’d want to go back in.